Angels are everywhere at Christmas. They are on the high street and in carols. They float atop trees with wings as drifted-snow, to recall Christina Rossetti’s lovely description.
But, given they are swooping and swirling in the seasonal darkness, what might we make of them? Do they merely add sparkle, like tinsel? Should they be demythologized, like the Druid’s “new dawn” of the winter solstice? Well, intelligent people over many centuries have encountered something real in the angels. So hold off the scepticism for a paragraph or two…
A way into experiencing the angels is offered by looking at their prehistory. Angels can be linked to the ancient Greek entities called daemons. These weren’t bad guys, as the modern word “demon” implies. Rather, they were simply go-betweens. They mediated forces and intuitions between different realms, particularly the realms of mortals and gods.
Socrates had a daemon, according to several different sources, a bit like a guardian angel. It was partly this access to seemingly otherworldly wisdom that caused him so much trouble at his trial, when he was condemned to death for ‘introducing new gods to the city’, a treasonous offence during times of civic unrest and war.
What’s fascinating now is how his daemon communicated with him. Socrates said that it always spoke in the negative. It would tell him not to do this, or not to do that. Sometimes the messages were apparently trivial like don’t leave, though not doing so led to a fruitful encounter. At other times the messages were life-changing or life-threatening. The daemon told him not to escape from prison whilst he was awaiting execution, as he easily could have done.
Socrates did not think to disobey his daemon. By the time of his death, in relative old age, he was too used to it being right. And then he realised why he should follow it, drink the hemlock and die. The manner of his death would be the greatest testament to what he had come to know. The tangible life we can see and touch, and which passes away, is only the most immediate dimension of a depth in life – the depth from which his daemon spoke in its enigmatic voice.
Contact with daemon-angels led some to regard Socrates as a magician. In the Symposium, Plato portrays Socrates as a person who had become so familiar with the work of the daemons that he too had gained the power to mediate between the visible and the invisible. But what’s striking about Socrates’ magical powers, his angel-like convictions, is that they arise not because he can mysteriously influence and change the world around him. Rather, he himself had been changed. He had undergone the transformation promised by philosophy. He could read the world at depth and so engage with life at a level that to others seemed uncanny. I thought the stage magician, Derren Brown, recently caught this spirit when he described how philosophy for him was about being porous to life.
How might we experience the angels today? Music is one way, which is perhaps why it is so closely associated with angels, not least at Christmas. Plato regarded music as a daemonic “science of the erotics”, a notion that immediately makes sense when you recall Noel Coward’s remark: “strange how potent cheap music is.” Music moves us, obviously and bluntly when Robbie Williams power-ballads through Angels, or a gentle choir croons Away In A Manger. Plato called such music “the love of the streets”, noting that whilst its potency is strong, it also dissipates fast.
To preserve the effects of music’s more subtle messages – to be open to the angel-like muses winging on the harmony – you need to learn to absorb the nuances of melodies. Can you distinguish between the drifting Hypodorian mode (an example is REM’s, Losing My Religion) and the heavenly Lydian (opening cord of The Simpson’s theme)? Does the excitement of the Mixolydian (the Star Trek theme) offer a different energy to the fiery Phrygian (think Rimsky Korsakov’s, Sheherazade)? To sink into these tunes, allowing them to lift and saturate you, is to experience the shifts of the divine in nature, also known as the daemons or angels, Plato suggests. It’s to let go of the distractions of the visible realm, and feel the tugs and pulls of the invisible.
The angels are, therefore, experienced when we respond. This is the most obvious way that angels are encountered in the Christian tradition. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and she utters her momentous, Be it unto me according to thy word. The angels put on a celestial show for the shepherds, and they hurry to Bethlehem. Angels offer numerous warnings in the Christmas story too, notably to Joseph and the Magi. A bit like Socrates’ daemon, the angels tell them what not to do: do not stay put; do not drop in again at Herod’s court.
Call it intuition, call it an inner voice. I don’t think it really matters because response is the key for the angels. They won’t be proven. But their presence can be known when the flow of life shifts so that it’s not just me making my mark on the world, but the world being allowed to make its mark in me. Examine yourself, Socrates advises, not to find yourself but to understand how you get in the way of this bigger sense of life.
Even when they provoke fearfulness, as forces and perceptions beyond oneself do, it’s possible to discern and trust them. It’s an intriguing possibility to test in the season of the angels.
Image: Harpocratic Eros, ca. 100–50 BC